With the clear evidence of bands like Genesis in his music, it’s no surprise that Neal Morse grew up enthused by the British music scene. His is yet another story of an artist being struck by the Beatles’ legendary appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show – even though he was only four years old.
“I was really influenced by the English bands,” he told me. “In fact, except for maybe Simon and Garfunkel and Steely Dan, almost everybody that I loved was English. Everybody.”
It is a link that his band proudly relates from the stage, a band that seems the culmination of all the other acts he has been a part of. Morse sees it another way; as more of a parallel stream, where these bands – Spock’s beard, Transatlantic and Flying Colors – are “all great in their own way and all different.”
For all the impact that these bands and his solo albums made on the genre, his last two releases by The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment and the Pilgrim’s Progress epic Similitude of a Dream – seem like a level above much of his past work. I wondered whether it feels like that from his point of view.
“Yeah! We definitely felt that, with Similitude particularly,” he exclaimed, “It’s allowing the different guys – particularly the newer elements of Bill [Hubauer, Keys] and Eric [Gillette, guitar] – to really flourish and shine and sing. The things that they bring to the table are amazing. The only reason I’m singling Mike and Randy out is that I’ve been with them longer.
“There’s been a stepping up of their involvement in the whole writing process as well, and I think that’s making a huge difference.”
Bassist Randy George and drummer Mike Portnoy have each been with Morse in several different line-ups. Portnoy, in particular, seems to have a complementary approach to creating the music. Perhaps given confidence by his reputation and popularity after years in Dream Theater, he comes across live as a co-leader in the band. But it is behind the scenes where his creative edge comes out. A bit like Troy Donockley, when he was in Iona, Portnoy is the odd one out in a band of Christians, but equally respected for his input. And he is a drummer who writes.
Morse enthused over his part in the band. “He’s very involved creatively and has an amazing mind for music; he has an amazing mind, period! He takes in the whole picture – the whole production, the live thing. I’m sure that’s why God put us together, because I’m really more of a just-music-and-lyrics guy, and Mike’s a big-picture guy: he takes a lot in and he thinks in a different way than I do, which is really helpful.”
Looking across the ideas that Morse has used for his concepts albums, it becomes clear how often he takes a fairly esoteric theme, such as the glory of God or the Fall, and personalises it, so that listeners can relate to it. By putting it into people’s personal perspectives, listeners can hear it being sung from the inside. Add his own biography in the two Testimony albums, and you can see how Morse is a born storyteller.
“I try to do that,” he concurred. “I’m excited about that. It gets me up in the morning, trying to take deep spiritual matters and put them in hopefully, poetic ways, but ways that people can feel and relate to. That was the challenge with Similitude lyrically: wanting to take the concepts in this very old book and make it relatable today. I really enjoyed working on Similitude, because it fell together in such a great flow.”
The trickier side of complementary elements in a band is when they disagree. Similitude had its flow blocked when there was a “struggle between Mike and I about whether or not to have a second disc – Mike was really against it, it’s very well-known, and I wanted to explore it.”
The disagreement happened on a Monday night. Morse continued, “Because of that, I woke up and I wrote a lot of stuff I probably wouldn’t have written. I was thinking we would work on it in the studio together, but it was looking like that wasn’t going to happen and maybe I was going to have to try to put it together a little bit more on my own, to push the rock up the hill a little bit.
“Mike just came in on Tuesday with a totally different perspective. I feel, of course, from my point of view, that God came and brought healing to the whole situation. Once we resolved that, Kaboom! That was Tuesday at like one or two o’clock in the afternoon. By Thursday at seven, the album was done and it was like, ‘Boys, I think we’ve made the album of our careers!’”
And I’m not one to disagree with that.
Having reviewed a few Morse albums and made comments about how his earlier influences seemed to appear so clearly as if to be deliberate tributes or pastiches, I felt I owed it to him to check out what was accidental and what was deliberate.
Derek: “Author of Confusion” on One: is the Gentle Giant vocal bit deliberate or accidental?
Neal (laughing): Well, the first Gentle Giant piece that I wrote was “Thoughts” on [Spock’s Beard’s] Beware of Darkness. I wasn’t sure if it was too Gentle Giant or not. I ran it by the band and they loved it and wanted to do it and then it became one of our signature pieces. So then, I thought, “Oh!” so I did “Gibberish” and I did “Thoughts, Pt, 2” and there were many different times when I was writing these. I grew up with that kind of thing, so I love writing it. I love trying to figure out the intricate little things and “Author of Confusion” is really just another one in a long line. To me, it’s really a classical or madrigal style of writing in rock music, which I just love. I think it’s great.
Derek: What about “Waterfall,” because to me, that is so like Genesis’ “Entangled” – is that deliberate?
Neal (Laughs again) Oh, yeah, yeah! Totally, totally! Yeah!
Derek: Do you sit down to write something that sounds like this, but is your own?
Neal: It isn’t deliberate in the beginning, I don’t think. A lot of times, you’re just writing something and you’re like, “It’s really nice.” The chorus of that came from one of Bill’s demos and I kind of plugged out this verse. Then, when it all came together, that’s when I realised how much it sounded like “Entangled”. Then, I even put the synth with the vibrato in. I thought, “I wonder if this is too far?” But generally, we’ll talk about it as a band. A lot of times, you wind up making things what you feel they want to be and let the references fly.
Derek: “Ways of a Fool” has two references in it, starting with ELO and then alphabetically moving to ELP. Is that a clever idea??!
Neal: Bill had dabbled around in both of those sections. I didn’t know until later, when he told me. “The Balloon Song” is what we called it, and that had been in the wings for the Grand Experiment album and then we thought of it for the section in Similitude, but the ELP thing, he was just plunking around with something. I thought, “That’s great!” I took it down on my phone. Sometimes we have these bits and pieces and we sort of put them on a board and when we come up to a place, “Hmm, can we throw that in there?” We try it.